FORT PIERCE — In the aftermath of three unsolved shooting fatalities since Christmas, Deputy Police Chief Kenny Norris’ questioning brought one youth to tears.
Norris asked the boy if he would shoot another youth who was standing nearby.
The tears came after the boy said, ‘You know what? I contemplated it for a second’, Norris said.
“Lets not sugarcoat this,” said the deputy chief. “There is a sickness in our (Lincoln Park) neighborhoods.”
The black deputy chief said the black community has to take some responsibility for that sickness.
“We’ve been preaching Black Lives Matter and how police are doing this or police are doing that in shooting blacks,” Norris said.
But, said Norris, the number of police shootings pale in comparison to black-on-black shootings and murders in Fort Pierce and across the nation. Since Dec. 25 there have been three such homicides in Fort Pierce’s Lincoln Park neighborhoods. That area generally is bounded by U.S. 1 on the east, Orange Avenue on the south, North 33rd Street on the west and south of Avenue T (Belcher Canal) to the north.
“We’ve got to start saying ‘No More’,” Norris said.
He urged people to stand up, especially those who see shootings but don’t speak up about them.
St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara said that after a shooting in Fort Pierce, he talked to four bystanders in a driveway where the shooting occurred. They weren’t shot. They said they didn’t see anything.
The homeowner had the same response, Mascara said.
As Mascara explained it, much of the gunfire is between a small number of people who are in gangs or know people who are. They settle their own disputes between themselves without turning to law enforcement.
Their code: Don’t snitch — a rule that law enforcement said allows a lawbreaking minority to often exist unexposed in largely residential neighborhoods.
Traffic enforcement has become a way of monitoring the community. Deputies are told to be on guard because traffic stops can include finding handguns, Mascara said.
From Jan. 21 to 24, traffic stops and other investigations led law enforcement to seizing six large-caliber handguns — five were stolen — when arresting eight young men, ages 17 to 26, all Fort Pierce residents. Five of them are identified as members of gangs in the city, according to arrest reports. They were arrested on charges such as possession of firearms by gang-related felons.
Police apprehended four of them after getting a 911 call about an armed man outside an apartment on North 16th Court. The four were found in a running SUV parked outside.
“No one admitted to knowing the guns (that were in the SUV) were there,” a police report states.
Old problem, new problem
During 2015, Fort Pierce police made 24 arrests for illegal possession of firearms. The Sheriff’s Office made 30 arrests countywide, including Fort Pierce. Port St. Lucie had 14 arrests throughout the year in a city with four times the population of Fort Pierce.
The gun violence problem in the northwest sections of Fort Pierce has gone on for years.
Passion Burgess was 18 years old and three months pregnant when she was shot in Fort Pierce during 2005. She was shot twice in the back and once in the arm while parked in a car near Ninth Street and Avenue J. At the time, police said the assailant, a 21-year-old man, may have shot her because he was angry at one of her cousins.
The injuries left her in a wheelchair. Her son is alive.
“Let my voice be heard,” she said. “(The violence) needs to stop.”
North Fort Pierce resident Teaira Reed, 21, has become the mother of her two younger sisters, as well as her own infant child. Reed’s mother, Tanya Oliver, 41, is unable to speak or walk because of being shot in the head early last year near Avenue M.
“(The shooters) are not thinking beyond a moment of anger,” Reed said. “They do what they want to do.”
City Commissioner Rufus Alexander III said the community should come together more than it has.
“We have got to plant a seed and nurture it,” he said when speaking to a group of citizens from Lincoln Park on Jan. 15.
Mascara said change might have to come one-by-one by gradually persuading youth to go in different directions. Norris’ conversation with the youth brought to tears was one attempt.
Police Chief Diane Hobley-Burney said that many kids don’t believe there is a tomorrow.
“They are missing hope,” she said, noting police and other community leaders need to lead by example.
She came here from the Tampa police force after seeing firsthand what was going on in Fort Pierce. She later hired Norris, who had worked with her in Tampa.
“We didn’t come here for the big money,” Norris said. “We want to make a change.”
Efforts taking root
The police chief emphasizes officers have greater interaction with the community to help engender cooperation. Community leaders endorse her efforts.
“We want it understood that if you are living around (violence), you do not have to be part of it,” she said.
Members of the volunteer citizens patrol Guardian Angels are on the streets of northwest Fort Pierce weekly to show they don’t accept lawlessness, said organizer Ned Childress of Fort Pierce.
Police and other law enforcement agencies are trying to push back against the gunfire. Hobley-Burney warned that people on public assistance who harbor criminals may have their housing assistance vouchers canceled.
Two weeks ago police again convened an interagency task force to help counter the outbreak in gunfire. An array of federal and state agencies are cooperating with police. Police officials aren’t disclosing the details of what they are doing.
“We’re sending out a message,” the police chief said. “If you disrupt we will do everything to fix it, to find you and charge you.”
Anthony Thompson is a Fort Pierce native and a retired corrections officer who worked at Martin Correctional Institution. He’s a member of Choice Community Outreach, a group of six current and retired correctional officers who try to intervene in the lives of youths and adults, to steer them away from getting into trouble and into prison.
“Kids never hear the reality of the whole situation: what their actions can lead to,” he said.
His group’s approach: Encourage the good qualities; tell them to show their ingenuity and craftsmanship before they’re forced to do that while behind prison bars.
Thompson now lives in Port St. Lucie but wants to help counter crime in Fort Pierce, to help from the inside out, he said. “There is no one umbrella to do it.”
Alfred Perry Jr. got involved in crime at an early age in Fort Pierce and during October 2008 was released after serving 14 years in Florida prisons.
Now he runs a halfway house in Vadalia, Georgia. He wants to return to Fort Pierce to establish a similar program to help youth stay away from crime after getting out of jail.
“Crime is high and our children struggle without needed help,” he said. During his youth, Perry’s parents were separated and poor.
“I strongly believe the fact that my father couldn’t read or write and was an alcoholic … had a direct affect on me,” he said.
His older brother died from AIDS in 1997. “He always encouraged me to stop stealing and getting in trouble.” Perry said he promised his brother to change after he got out of prison.
The biggest change, he said, was changing his mind to believe in himself and to take others in account.
Teaira Reed is 21. Her mother, Tanya Oliver, 42, was shot in the head during March 2015, in a parking lot near their home on North 23rd Street.
“It is crazy,” Reed said, who during September attended a meeting of the Tri-County Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children on Avenue D in Fort Pierce. “(Shooting in the city) doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “(The shooters) don’t realize the impact they can have.”
Reed said her mother never rested while raising her and her younger sisters alone in a home on North 23rd Street, near where her mother was shot. Oliver now is in a wheelchair and can’t speak and is in a rehabilitation center in Miami.
Since the shooting, Reed has been taking care of her sisters and her own infant child. She said her mother taught her something as important as reading and writing. “She taught me how to live.”